San Francisco's Fillmore district swings again

Amy McConnell

Fillmore finds

When Paula West and Kim Nalley work the crowds into a frenzy forthis year's Fillmore Jazz Festival, they'll be honoring a traditionthat dates back decades. "All the great jazz musicians used to playat clubs along Fillmore," says Carl Williams, an attorney andlongtime Fillmore resident. "It was the center of African Americannightlife."

The glory days of the Fillmore jazz scene faded for a while. Butnow, as you can see ― and hear ― this month, theneighborhood is back in the groove.

"I can feel the energy"

Centered where its namesake street intersects Post Street, theFillmore district is buzzing again. On a Saturday Jazz Night, walkinto Perry's Joint ― an ice cream shop and art speakeasy― to get a sense of the community's spirit. Locals stop in tochat with owner Perry Bennett and comment on the art exhibits, andto get an earful of the week's jazz show.

Bennett loves that his store is such a gathering place. "It'slike the neighborhood safe spot," he says. "If a kid gets lockedout, they come here and get ice cream. If someone's out of work andcan't pay for lunch, they come here and eat. It's just automatic.What I'm doing is not unique ― I'm just trying to hold on towhat was, to what I think is important."

What's important is the Fillmore's renewed role as a center ofAfrican American culture in the Bay Area. During World War II,African American workers were drawn to jobs with good wages in BayArea shipyards. And the Fillmore had a concentration of affordablehousing. The result was one of the nation's most vibrant blackneighborhoods. Dozens of clubs hosted the era's major musicaltalents, including Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Duke Ellington,and Billie Holliday.

But by the 1950s, the neighborhood had faded. In the '60s hugeswaths of it were destroyed by ill-conceived urban renewal. "Whatthe Fillmore was could never exist again," Bennett says,regretfully. Still, he adds, the neighborhood is turning around. "Ican feel the energy starting to change for the better."

That's thanks in large part to the community push to create theJazz Preservation District in the lower Fillmore neighborhood,which runs south from Post to about McCallister Street and roughlyto Steiner Street on the west and Webster Street on the east. Withhelp from the city government-funded Jazz Promotions Office, newbusinesses are migrating to the area.

Rasselas jazz club is one hub of musical energy in theneighborhood. Run by Ethiopian-born Agonafer Shiferaw, Rasselas isregularly packed with a diverse crowd. "This is one of the fewplaces where you can see all kinds of people ― black, Asian,gay, straight," Shiferaw says. "That is infinitely rewarding."

A season of jazz

Summer is prime time for a Fillmore visit. The jazz festival isa weekend-long street party that covers 12 blocks of FillmoreStreet. The Fillmore Farmers' Market will be in full swing, runningevery Saturday through mid-November; it offers live jazz too. FromAugust through September, Fillmore Fridays will bring free concertsto Gene Suttle Plaza, at Fillmore and O'Farrell Streets. A jazzpiano bar called Sheba Lounge is scheduled to open in August aswell.

Jazz has even invaded the Fillmore streetscape. The "BlueBridge" across Geary Boulevard is lined with blue glass panelsinscribed with a free-form poem by Quincy Troupe. Sidewalk paverson the blocks south of Geary are engraved with the names of jazzgreats and historic clubs like Jimbo's Bop City. "As I walk up anddown Fillmore Street, as I often do," says Carl Williams, "I oftenstop to read those tributes to our great jazz forefathers. They'rewonderful reminders."

Fillmore finds
The 20th Annual Fillmore JazzFestival (800/731-0003) takes place July 3-4; admission isfree. For information about the farmers' market (9-1 Sat throughNov 20), Fillmore Fridays (5 p.m.-8 p.m. Fri, Aug 6-Sep 27; free),and the Big Band & BBQ (11 a.m.-6 p.m., Oct 10; free), contactthe FillmoreJazz Preservation District (415/441-6396).

Blue Bridge. Bridge across Geary features 20 blue glasspanels inscribed with poetry. Fillmore St. and Geary Blvd.

Boom Boom Room. Intimate blues club founded by the late JohnLee Hooker. From $8. 1601 Fillmore; 415/673-8000.

Harput's. Family-run store selling retro-style shoes andapparel. Run-D.M.C. and Michael Jordan have shopped here. 1527Fillmore; 866/823-4327.

Perry's Joint. Cozy ice cream parlor with art exhibits,Saturday-night jazz concerts, and Monday- and Thursday-night poetryreadings. 1661 Fillmore; 415/931-5260.

Powell's Place. Venerable soul food restaurant is set toreopen here by August with live jazz, gospel, and blues. $$. 1521Eddy St., in Fillmore Center; 415/863-1404.

Rasselas. Jazz, blues, and Latin music, plus an adjoiningrestaurant with excellent Ethiopian food ($$). $7 Fri-Sat, freeSun-Thu. 1534 Fillmore; www.rasselasjazzclub.comor 415/346-8696.

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